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Our survey includes 68 democracy experts' views on the behavior of American political leaders from January to May 2017. Respondents are academic scholars who study democratic decline or countries that have recently experienced democratic erosion. We contacted 233 experts, for a response rate of 29.2%. Polling took place from May 15-21.* See here for an analysis of the results and here for coverage in Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.

Drawing on common patterns of recent democratic erosion, we asked about six categories of threats to democracy:

  • Media: Leaders' treatment of media, respect for free press, and transparency

  • Executive Constraints: Effective constraints of executive against abuses of power; leaders' respect for judiciary, legislature, and rule of law

  • Elections and Treatment of Opposition: Respect for free and fair elections and legitimacy of opposition

  • Civil Liberties: Respect for core freedoms (such as speech, assembly, religion, and privacy)

  • Civil Violence: Use of violence, intimidation, or paramilitary organizations for political ends

  • Rhetoric: Speech by political leaders indicating democratic erosion or weak normative attachment to democracy

For each category, respondents could choose among five responses:

  1. Within range of a normally functioning consolidated democracy

  2. Moderate violations atypical of a consolidated democracy, but that don't yet threaten breakdown

  3. Violations that signal significant erosion of democracy quality and warn of high potential for breakdown in future

  4. Critical violations that seriously threaten near-term survival [several at this level sufficient to render system non-democratic]

  5. Violations severe enough to make system non-democratic

Results: (Average) (Median) (Range)


Media (2.2) (2) (1-3)

  • One respondent pointed to "verbal assaults on the media" as the greatest recent threat.

Executive Constraints (2.4) (2) (1-4)

  • One respondent pointed to the "abdication of oversight responsibilities by the majority in congress" as the greatest recent threat.


Elections and Treatment of Opposition (2.0) (2) (1-4)

  • One respondent pointed to "unjustified claims of massive voter fraud that could lead to more restrictions on the right to vote across the country" as the greatest recent threat.

Civil Liberties (1.7) (2) (1-4)

Civil Violence (1.3) (1) (1-4)


Rhetoric (2.9) (3) (1-5)

  • One respondent wrote, "The lack of expressed respect for democratic values gives no reason to hope that in the event of a future event - e.g. state of emergency or military conflagration - current leaders would not take advantage of the opportunity to engage in more systemic transformative measures."

  • Another respondent noted, "I've been surprised at how timid Trump's actions have been, especially in comparison with the bluster of his rhetoric."

​We also asked about respondents' guesses on the likelihood that American democracy breaks down (by their definition) within the next four years.

  • The average estimate was 11.1%.

  • The median estimate was 7%.

  • Estimates ranged from 0 to 60%. Only 6 of 68 answered 0.

Click here for a further analysis of our results.

Click here for the exact text of the survey.

Click here for the full survey results (anonymized) in a spreadsheet.

* Four answered an earlier pilot survey. All survey results are confidential. The survey was supported by IRB certification #051706 (29200) at George Washington University.

Authoritarian Warning Survey (May 2017) | Survey on American Democracy

May 2017

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